Friday, January 4, 2019

Life and Times in the Eleventh Century: Death Comes at Christmas and a New King is Crowned

by Paula Lofting

September of the year 1065: King Edward, reigning for twenty years, was now beset by a rebellion  from the northern counties of his realm. Despite holding lands there, Edward had never been inclined to wander further than the Midlands. It might seem strange, but Edward was not a ruler who embraced the itinerant life. Nor was he the epitome of Anglo-Saxon warrior-kings who rode at the head of an army. Edward was the sort of king who preferred praying to fighting and hunting to swordplay, leaving most of the martial affairs of his kingdom to his capable number two, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex.

Edward also seemed to prefer the company of men to that of women – well, if the way he treated his mother and his wife was anything to go by. One could say that Edward had a good reason not to be too fond of women, considering he was abandoned by his mother in an act of political survival. 
Although he was wed to Edith Godwinsdottir, it seemed he might have been fonder of her brother, Tostig, than he was of her.

Tostig’s appointment to the Earldom of Northumbria in 1055 had caused a lot of controversy at the time, and Tostig was often forced to deal with one conflict or another arising from among the stubborn, insubordinate northern thegns. By 1065, it seems they’d had enough of him increasing their taxes and executing those who challenged him. Tostig, however, had a different viewpoint - he'd only been trying to bring them into line with the laws of the southern earldoms. The men of Northumbria, backed by the Mercian lords, decided to oust him, preferring Morcar, the brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, to Tostig, threatening an internal war if the king did not agree. In November of that year, Tostig was forced into exile and not even his brother Harold was willing to see a civil war destroy the kingdom despite the blood tie. Whether or not the rebels were justified in their complaints, the downfall of Tostig had been set in motion and Harold was determined not to go down with him, and perhaps, who could blame him? He was, after all, at the pinnacle of his power.

Edward was devastated, shattered by his counsellors’ refusal to restore Tostig to his post using arms. The loss of Tostig seems to have broken him and he ‘became so ill, his mind was affected until his death’ - Vita Ædwardi Regis (The life of King Edward). It seems that on that fateful day when it was ruled that Tostig was to be outlawed, Edward was to suffer the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death.

There must have been a strange tinge of unease during the Christmas preparations those following weeks that Edward took to his sick bed. Up until the Tostig episode, Edward, though a considerable age, had been quite robust and still able to go hunting in his favourite spot, the Forest of Dean. And Harold had intended to gift his king a hunting lodge, the land of Archenfield, that he had conquered back from Gruffudd a couple of years ago. Therefore, Edward, at that time, had been of stout heart and mind. But in an unfortunate incident in August 1065, Welsh raiders burned the lodge to the ground. The loss of Tostig must have hit the king harder than the loss of Harold’s gift. Tostig’s removal coincided with the start of Edward's illness which seemed to worsen as the weeks went by. As Christmas approached, it must have been clear that Edward was not going to recover from such a serious illness. He was on his way out and not coming back.

One would hardly imagine that a kingdom’s administration would have been totally unprepared for a change in regime. With possible war with various factions on the horizon, it would barely seem rational that plans for the aftermath of Edward’s passing had not been made. The speed with which Harold was to be crowned can be thought to have been a fait accompli. So, whilst Edward lay sick in his bed in those weeks after Tostig’s departure, the wise men of the kingdom, the witan, must have met to come up with a plan. The meeting would also have included the queen, who, according to Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, was said to have loved her brother Tostig and hated Harold. Because of the nature of Tostig’s downfall and Harold’s refusal to back him to the northern rebels she held a grudge against him and may not have been happy that Harold was elected as heir to her husband’s throne. But her best chance of surviving as an influential player in this Anglo-Saxon Game of Thrones was to have gone with the flow and hedge all her bets on her brother, Harold. Ok, he was not flavour month where she was concerned, but she may have been reminded of what had happened to her predecessor, Emma of Normandy, whose power greatly diminished when her last husband died.

During this time, Harold would have been garnering support amongst the most significant members of the nobility. Earl Leofric, head of the Mercian anti-Godwin faction, was long dead, and so was his son Ælfgar. Now it was down to his sons who were in power in the north in both the midlands and the northern counties. Earls Morcar and Edwin were very young, only in their mid-to-late-teens, when the old king was dying, but they would have known of the conflicts involving their father and Harold.  Despite the Godwinson name coming up in events surrounding Ælfgar’s problems, Harold seems to have been the chief negotiator when solving the disputes which always came out in the Mercian lord’s favour. It is therefore not unreasonable, to believe that there was no real animosity between the sons of Ælfgar and Harold. They would owe him a debt for the part he played in allowing them to succeed to the earldoms of Merica and Northumbria, especially in the case of the latter which meant that Harold had to turn his back on his own brother. Its quite likely they would have voted for Harold with the witan, and thrown in their sister, Aldith, as part of the deal. Of course, all the other earls were Godwins too – Leofwine and Gyrth – who were Harold’s younger brothers after Tostig. Amongst the other members of the witan would have been archbishops Stigand and Eadred, both Godwin supporters, not to mention leading bishops and abbots, and abbesses also, and other wealthy and powerful thegns up and down the country. With the witan's seal on the table, all Harold really needed now as a stamp of approval was for Edward to express his consent, bearing in mind that it was less than eighteen months since Harold had sworn on holy relics to William of Normandy that he would help the duke realise his ambition of becoming the next King of England.

They say that when people are at the end of their lives, they somehow find the strength to stay for that special arrival, or occasion.  This could be said of Edward, who managed to find the strength to attend the Christmas Day celebrations and was probably hoping that he would make the consecration of his church. He certainly must have struggled throughout the day's proceedings for evidently he was unable to partake of much of his food, and after this night, he took to his bed and never arose again, even missing his newly built Romanesque-style church consecration ceremony on the 28th December.

Imagine the scenario, Edward, with the greatest of his nobles gathered around him, his dutiful loyal wife, Edith warming his feet as she was wont to do, and a lot of people scuffling here and there to prepare for the funeral and coronation. As already mentioned, it was already decided who the next king was going to be, but for added excitement, the Vita creates an atmosphere of suspense as  the court waited for Edward to make his nomination. The king spends days in and out of consciousness, but is unable to name his successor until he has, in a lucid moment, relayed a strange prophetical dream that produces some very cryptic foreshadowing - probably added to the Vita after the events of 1066 have played out.

Grumbling, Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, turns to Harold and says that the king is raving like a madman, but then the king seems to be restored to sanity and speaks his last words: “Do not mourn for me, but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping and he spoke words of comfort to her and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”

Following on from this poignant, tragic scene, Edward finds the strength at last to speak the words they've all been waiting for, raising his hand to Harold: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.” Edward - or perhaps Edith, who has commissioned the Vita Edwardi, seems to have been worried about her welfare after his death, and also that of the men whose names did not need mentioning but would have been known. Did Edith have reservations about Harold's intentions after he was crowned?

As we know, Edward pops his clogs and is gone from this world after giving instructions for his funeral. Did he ask them to send an invitation to William for the funeral? Not that there would have been time, but if, as the Normans liked to put it about, he had wanted William to be his heir, and had named him as such, surely arrangements would have been made to let the duke know that his cousin was soon to be extinguished from this life and that he should make preparations as soon as possible to attend his new court. But no, William was not sent for. Harold had already been chosen, had tried on the crown for size and made sure it fitted. William knew nothing about Edward's death and Harold's take-over. When he heard, it was said that he went into such a rage, he was almost catatonic, barely speaking.

And what of Edgar, the aetheling? Should he not have been considered? He was, after all throne-worthy due to his blood lineage. He was the only one known to use the title of aetheling. At this time, Edgar could not have been much more than thirteen or fourteen. He would not likely, given what could be coming, been able to handle such a situation without any experience. He did not appear to have followers or much in the way of land. His parents had arrived in England with riches, but he'd not been old enough to take charge of that yet, I suspect. He'd most likely had some grooming and education that any princeling might have expected to set him up for nomination, but Edward was not expected to leave the world just yet and he was, it seems, unprepared for kingship. And given the threat that would come from Normandy and from Tostig, whose intentions were probably easy to predict, would an untried mere boy of thirteen or fourteen be the best man for the job compared to Harold?

If it had been me on that counsel in 1065, Harold, tried and tested as a diplomat and military general, I would have opted for the man and not the boy. How about you?

Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane.

Find Paula on her Blog
on her Amazon Author Page


  1. With William of Normandy and Tostig breathing down his neck, I don't think Edward could have made any other choice.

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Very interesting and informative. I agree. Considering the times, Harold was the only sensible choice. We all know the final outcome at Hastings, but of course, Edward could not know. So he made the best logical choice, Harold.

  4. Very interesting and informative. I agree. Considering the times, Harold was the only sensible choice. We all know the final outcome at Hastings, but of course, Edward could not know. So he made the best logical choice, Harold.


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